(A curmudgeonly voice keeps the establishment in line.)
The first thing that gave me a media charge in Alaska was Mike Doogan’s thrice-weekly Metro column in the Anchorage Daily News. Doogan’s style crackles with wit and passion. The second thing I noticed was that he was a dead ringer for Pete Dexter.
So I teased him over the phone with that ice-breaker, only to find out the next day, schmoozing with his editor Howard Weaver, that the first thing Mike did when he got the assignment was to ring up Pete at the Sacramento Bee for some free advice. (The Anchorage paper and the Sacramento daily are McClatchy siblings.) Pete’s counsel was recognizably Dexterian: Be yourself (and don’t take any shit, the suppressed premise).
My first palaver with Mike was short because he was flying up to Fairbanks to help celebrate the golden anniversary of his parents’ wedding. Mike, 42, is one of six kids of a teamster father now retired. He spent six years at the other Anchorage daily, the Times. In May 1985 he moved over to the Daily News—where, in due course, he became city editor for a paper that Howard Weaver as turning into a powerhouse.
It started as an anti-statehood paper in 1948 and garnered national attention in the 1960s with Pulitzers for nailing hanky-panky in the Prudhoe Bay pipeline construction. In 1979, after signing up with McClatchy, it began as a slow second with 12,000 daily circulation and no Sunday edition. Now, Weaver beamed, it’s 60,000 to the Times’ 35,000 daily, and ahead by 77,000 to 45,000 on Sundays. It’s by giving bright writers like Doogan their heads that Weaver’s tenure has bloomed.
Anchorage was deep in doodoo over arts issues when I arrived, and I falsely inferred from Mike’s first three pieces that the arts were his beat. He is, rather, a Steve Lopez, with a basilisk eye cocked for political outrage yet eager to find hopeful signs, however infrequently they might appear.
It happened that the public TV station in Anchorage was premiering an hour-long docudrama on Alaska’s first professional artist, one Sydney Laurence, the week I showed up. At the gala champagne reception preview at the new $72 million Performing Arts Center, the head of the TV station prefaced the screening by saying how much sweat equity from how many people had gone into creating “Laurence of Alaska.” But the painful fact was that Laurence is a very minor painter. He reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt’s lament about the Spanish-American War: “It wasn’t much of a war, but it was the only war we had.”
In a city of only 250,000, one might expect that even an official curmudgeon might pull his punches. Not Mike Doogan. “Sydney Laurence,” he began, “covered acres of canvas with paint, turning the fresh subjects of Alaska’s landscape almost instantly into clichés.”
He’s not through. “The painter’s early work is more interesting than the later, hotel-motel art he produced, a dismal procession of cozy cabins, caches, a zillion or so McKinleys, and even—I kid you not—a sunset-behind-moose. There is an occasional interesting painting—even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while—but overall it’s clear Laurence had skill, but no genius.” (You should see the letters to the editor!)
A week later, Doogan was at it again. In celebration of the town’s 75th anniversary, the city fathers of Anchorage had commissioned some public art. And one of the lucky grantees was Gary Gantz, “a burly guy with a graying beard and a courtroom voice.”
“The creation,” Doogan observed, “is four 14-foot-long by five-foot-high panels of enamel-covered aluminum, painted to resemble railroad car windows. The background is a diorama of the natural features of the Anchorage area, from Portage Glacier to McKinley, with the boring parts chopped out. In the foreground are silhouettes of people doing various things…Imagine a really big gold pan with a bunch of ‘Pedestrian Xing’ crossing people capering around on it, and you’re close.”
Actually, I rather like the Hitchcockian touch of Gantz painting himself in—with moose ears.
Take his animadversions of the $1 million plus-a-year subsidy the Performing Arts Center is taking to balance its budget. “The arts types and big-money culture vultures who were able to muscle the PAC onto the city’s agenda are likely to keep it there…It would cost $600,000 to $700,000 just to mothball the place…Even as we put more children in classrooms and fewer firefighters downtown, leave our sidewalks unplowed and our streets unrepaired, we pay a wealthy subsidy so our wealthiest citizens can enjoy art in lavish surroundings. This tail is going to wag this dog for a long time.”
I wish I could say that the HyperNeoDeco edifice by Hardy, Holzman, Pfeiffer was at least a major contribution to American architecture. It ain’t. It’s got more dead spaces than a junkyard.
Reprinted from Welcomat, Hazard-at-Large